Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Thomas King on why humour and tragedy are inseparable

The winner of the 2014 Governor General's Literary Award answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Thomas King is the author of the novel The Back of the Turtle. (Trina Koster)

Thomas King won the Governor General's Literary Award in 2014 for The Back of the Turtle, a novel about a brilliant scientist on the brink of suicide whose life changes when he saves a young girl from drowning.

Below, Thomas King answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Pasha Malla asks, "Which would be preferable: a life of relative contentment and comfort, and having your books die alongside you, or being miserable and destitute, and having your books read long after you are dead?"

This is what folks in rhetoric would call a false either/or dichotomy because it suggests that there are only two choices available. I know I'm supposed to choose one or the other, but being a contrary, I would prefer not to be miserable and/or destitute, and I would hope that my work survives me.

2. Lorna Crozier asks, "If you weren't sitting at your desk writing, what would you be doing instead?"

If I weren't sitting at my desk writing, I would be in a restaurant writing, or on a beach writing, or at a truck stop writing.

3. Sharon Butala asks, "What do you think of the age-old notion that the best writing comes out of a life led outside the bourgeoisie, where so-called 'rules' of normal middle-class life are deliberately broken and impulse is your guide, rather than duty or convention?"

Good writing can come from anywhere. I don't know that there are any social formulas for the production of fine literature. I think the essential elements are a keen imagination, opportunity, and passion.

4. Todd Babiak asks, "If you had to stop writing, due to some fantastical calamity, what career would you pursue and why?"

If I had to stop writing, I'd step across to photography or to painting or to any other art form that would allow me to tell a story.

5. Cathy Marie Buchanan asks, "How do you know when your book is finished?"

For me a book is like a child. I raise it up as best I can, and then I send it out into the world. I never think of my books as finished, but at some point, it's time for them to leave home.

6. Shauna Singh Baldwin asks, "What did you learn from writing one book that you have used/can use/will use when writing the next?"

I suppose I learn something from writing a book that carries over to the next book, but if there is, I'm not aware of it. Writing is like working out. Over time you develop muscles that you didn't have before.

7. Lawrence Hill asks, "Why do funny novels get so little respect in Canada, and have you ever burned with desire to write something so damn funny that readers will fall right out of their chairs? Is that a laudable goal?"

I'm not sure that humour has the respect it should. I suspect that most people see humour and tragedy as polar opposites, while, for me, any serious writing has to have elements of comedy to help alleviate the sorrow and, more importantly, to sharpen the tragedy.

8. William Deverell asks, "Claims of suffering writer's block are just excuses for laziness. Agree or disagree?"

I've never much believed in "writer's block." However, I do know that "writer's exhaustion" is real and can be devastating. Writing is a marathon event and sometimes we have to pause to catch our breath.

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